Huddersfield Town promoted to the Premier League after beating Reading on penalties
Over time, this game's indentity has been defined by the financial rewards it brings, rather than the stage it affords. So over emphasised has that cash aspect become that it's almost a surprise that, when the final-whistle blows, confetti falls rather than currency. But in the case of Reading and Huddersfield, eyes should be firmly on the achievement rather than just the accumulation: both were unlikely finalists and each had to defy the wage-bill realities to get to Wembley.
Just as David Wagner's innovation, energy and smart use of the transfer system has taken Huddersfield to within a step of completing a sporting quantum leap, Jaap Stam's first season at Reading has brought a similar bounce. Nineteenth and seventeenth in 2015/16's Championship table, to fifth and third in the space of a year; this was less a £200m game, more an opportunity to complete a minor miracle.
Huddersfield initially dealt better with the occasion. While Reading staggered into the final drunk on the adrenaline, Wagner's players made the more controlled start: Michael Hefele glanced a drifting Aaron Mooy free-kick beyond Ali Ali-Habsi's far-post before Izzy Brown, left completely alone in the six-yard box, choked a simple chance wide.
- Huddersfield are only the 4th EFL club to reach the final of the play-offs in all 3 divisions (Blackpool, Preston & Swansea).
One of Stam's successes at Reading has been the instigation of a definitive house style. The Royals are a patient side, sometimes overly so and in a way which draws criticism, and it's proven effective. Their early attempts to contain the directionless energy of the game and force some structure upon it were unsuccessful; Huddersfield had too much life and certainly too much athleticism in the wider areas. A Nakhi Wells break from midfield caught the eye in the opening twenty minutes, as did the penetration from both full-backs and the spritely menace of Elias Kachunga and Rajiv van la Parra. In contrast, Reading offered little beyond a bending Lewis Grabban shot which briefly threatened the bottom-corner.
The obvious risk associated with games of such importance is that, as time ticks on and the gravity of each individual action grows, inhibition starts to dictate the play. In the opening minutes of the second-half, that was certainly at work: Brown took four touches too many and turned the wrong way when presented with possession deep in the box and Reading failed to take advantage of some well-positioned free-kicks. Beyond that, very little. Lots of tension, plenty of anxious noise from both ends of the ground, but few opportunities of note. On 75 minutes, Mooy knotted up Danny Williams down the near touchline and cut into the box, but his driven cross was thumped wide by Collin Quaner.
Really, extra-time was an inevitability and by the time it arrived the length of the Championship season was beginning to show. Tired players and heavy legs everywhere, decisive quality and imagination nowhere to be seen. These teams didn't so much collide spectularly, as they did thud bluntly into each other; no, this wasn't a classic.
- Huddersfield have won both of their previous playoff finals that went to extra-time, while Reading have lost both of theirs.
As the additional half-an-hour trundled on, it served to emphasise just how harsh the playoff system is. These two teams may have contrasting styles, but were even enough to nullify one another. They didn't deliver a Wembley spectacle, but after a season of overachievement predicated, in part, on their ability to survive a mammoth campaign, the margins in this game were too slender to be fair.
On we went, past a scuffed shot from Wells, a few more overhit corners, and a late Chris Loewe free-kick which dropped just beyond Martin Cranie. And then finally, maybe mercifully, to penalties.
As the cliche goes, football can be cold-hearted. Michael Hefele and Liam Moore would both miss in the shootout, but a fine, strong-wristed stop from Danny Ward would deny Jordan Obita. The responsibility to put Huddersfield into the Premier League fell on Christopher Schindler and he calmly obliged, carving the ball low and beyond Al Habsi. One end of the ground burst with joy, the other sank heavy-hearted back into their seats. Yes, this is the world's richest game, but it also might be one of its toughest; an unforgiving slog through airless tension which draws the harshest of dividing lines.